A fascinating piece of American music history appeared online last week: legendary folk singer and activist Woody Guthrie’s New Year’s resolutions from 1943 — in his own handwriting.
The list looks like something that Huck Finn or a Depression country boy who never saw beyond the Oklahoma dust bowl would write, but by 1943 Guthrie was a married, prominent, famous entertainer who had his own radio show in New York and had already penned his signature anthem, “This Land is Your Land” — a song that despite later happy renditions by Bing Crosby, Peter, Paul and Mary, Donny Osmond, and a Budweiser beer commercial, is an anger-filled attack on U.S. capitalism that Bruce Springsteen calls the “greatest song about America ever written.”
Much like Springsteen’s own “Born in the U.S.A,” it would be a mistake to call “This Land is Your Land” a patriotic toast to Old Glory.
Peter Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang the original version at Barack Obama’s inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial — with Obama in attendance.
In fact, Guthie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in disgust after hearing Kate Smith perform Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” so often on radio. While “This Land” lyrics that remain boast about Redwood forests, golden valleys, sparkling sands and diamond deserts, the original lyrics snarled about signs reading “private property” and “no trespassing” and people standing hungry in long lines at Great Depression relief offices. While Guthrie never officially joined the U.S. communist party, it’s clear that’s where his sympathies lied.
Despite his popularity, success and relatively well-off, if not wealthy, celebrity in 1943, Guthrie remained true to early Oklahoma struggles and support of unions and the working class. He was 31 years old when he scribbled 33 New Year’s resolutions on a yellow pad in a New York hotel room. He called these personal challenges, “New Years Rulin’s.”
It was a different time, and Guthrie was a different person … to say the least. Here are some of his more unwashed New Year’s resolutions. Just for comparison, Rihanna and Lizza are 31 years old and crazy wealthy this year. I can’t imagine those two resolving to:
3. Wash teeth – if any.
5. Take bath.
10. Shine shoes.
11. Change socks.
Still, sprinkled among Guthrie’s 33 more earthy resolutions are admirable goals, and promises he did keep with conviction and indelible influence on Springsteen, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp, Jerry Garcia, and Bob Dylan. Morello still honors Guthrie by writing on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists,” exactly as Guthrie did during his career.
Guthrie’s loftier and still relevant resolutions:
1. Work more and better.
7. Drink very scant, if any.
13. Read lots good books.
15. Learn people better.
17. Don’t get lonesome.
20. Dream good.
21. Bank all extra money.
27. Help win war — beat fascism.
28. Love mama.
29. Love papa.
Nearly 80 year later, not bad advice for all of us.